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Business Trends to Watch in 2021: Adapting to the New Normal 

click to enlarge Brian T King CEO of AM King
  • Brian T King CEO of AM King

The events of 2020 reshaped business significantly. The changes we experienced did not occur in ripples, but more like a 40-foot wave crashing down upon us. Despite the disruptions, it was amazing and surprising how quickly business adapted and adjusted.

Yet while it may seem like the significant business changes that occurred were immediate in nature, most were consistent with the concept of “gradually then suddenly” – an oft-quoted line from Ernest Hemingway’s book, The Sun Also Rises. Excerpt: “How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked. “Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually, then suddenly.”

For example, the number of people working from home had been growing exponentially year after year. Virtual meeting rooms were readily available before 2020, just not widely used. Many restaurants offered take-out service, albeit for most it was a small and insignificant piece of their business. Online shopping and home delivery services existed widely well before the pandemic. Touchless payment, online document signing, curbside pickups, vacationing in a camper, and telemedicine are not new; however, their usage exploded in 2020 in response to the widespread shutdowns that occurred.

Looking ahead, there are three emerging trends that I believe will overshadow all others in the coming months. All three will have a significant and lasting impact on how we work. The nature of the impact will depend on how businesses respond over the next decade.

Trend 1: The Greatest Multigenerational Workforce in History

The workforce has undergone a dynamic shift over the past 40 years. No longer do we have a single older generation aging out and being replaced by the next generation. We now find ourselves with the greatest multigenerational workforce in history.

Never has business experienced four distinct and unique generations actively engaged in the workforce at the same time. Baby Boomers, the youngest now in their late 50s, will remain active in the workforce for the next 20 years. Generation X, a smaller population group ranging in age from early 40s to 55 will have continued careers extending another 30+ years. The Millennial generation, another large sector of the population – primarily children of the Boomers – are turning 40 and assuming greater leadership and management roles. And Gen Z, or Zoomers, who were born after 1996, has begun to enter the workforce. The most diverse generation ever, Zoomers were raised solely in the age of the Internet and digital interaction.

Throughout recent decades, the US workforce has been building toward multigenerational diversity. Now that it has arrived, it will certainly alter the world of business. Every organization, large and small, will now be pushed to address two challenges related to the multigenerational workforce: (1) How to effectively manage such a large age-diverse group; and (2) How to best harness the opportunities it presents.

A survey conducted by Deloitte in 2020 found that while 70 percent of organizations consider dealing with the multigenerational workforce very important, only 10 percent are ready to address this trend; and only 6 percent believe their leaders are equipped to lead a multigenerational workforce effectively.   

Though each generation is often defined by traits, it would be foolish to assign stereotypical labels to each of the four groups. The various life stages of this combined workforce are what will influence the workplace – not loosely defined generational traits. Members of these four generations bring differing levels of needs and expectations based on length of career and life stage. It would be irrational to think a 62-year-old empty nester would have the same expectations and needs as a single 32-year-old when it comes to work-life balance, career advancement, or company loyalty. Or that either of these individuals would have the same perspective as a 45-year-old with two teenage children, even though all three may share the same roles, responsibilities, and pay scales within the same company.

The challenge will be to find a balance that can benefit the company, accommodate the workforce, and ultimately retain and develop employees. Long established barriers will be removed, and rules will be changed to accommodate the needs and wants of each generation, all without crossing the lines of age discrimination. Each generation will have its own perspectives on pay structure, benefits, work flexibility, and advancement.     

This multigenerational workforce will also present tremendous opportunities internally. Organizations can leverage age diversity to develop valuable mentorships and peer-to-peer training. The open sharing and adoption of new ideas, technologies, and processes may be utilized as employers begin to realize the most valuable tools for continuing education may come from within the organizations, and not just from webinars or training seminars.

External benefits may be just as significant given that customer bases are intergenerational as well. The key to developing a business is to understand the wants and needs of the customer. Just as a 27-year-old manager may struggle to understand the quality and service requirements of a 54-year-old customer, that same 50-something manager has little understanding of a 20-something’s product needs and expectations. A strongly integrated multigenerational workforce can collaborate to determine business offerings that are aligned with its customer base, regardless of whether that base is narrow or broad.

Trend 2: Creativity is the New Critical Skill

No longer is creativity relegated as a function of marketing and innovation teams, or a talent specific to artists or musicians. It is now in high demand as a necessary and critical skill for business leaders and managers. LinkedIn identified creativity as the Number 1 soft skill required by companies in 2020. It was also rated as one of the Top 3 required skills for workforces in the recent Future of Jobs study conducted by the World Economic Forum. Interestingly, an independent study by Forrester Consulting determined that companies who foster a culture of creativity enjoy greater revenue growth than their peers, have a larger market share, and gain more recognition as a best place to work.

Why the sudden demand for creativity? If the past year has taught us anything, it is that change can occur quickly and in unexpected ways. Creative thinking and actions are the best way to navigate through these changes. A culture of creativity encourages a continual process of challenging existing norms and responding to change in an immediate, innovative, and successful manner. Quite simply, creative businesses find ways to succeed in a time of crisis.

Creativity does not require businesses to invent the next innovative product or develop groundbreaking technology. It does require business leaders to adopt an attitude of continuous improvement and develop the ability to successfully adapt to change. Businesses utilize creativity to determine new methods for interacting with customers or suppliers, and how they manage a changing workforce. It will cause some companies to outsource more and some less. It may determine a new specification for excellence and quality for services or products. Business as usual is no longer enough, and developing a creative culture allows organizations to go beyond existing norms.

Creative companies are the result of creative employees. Individuals who possess creative skills will experience greater opportunities. Because numerous studies have shown that creativity is a learned skill, organizations will seek training programs to increase creativity among existing employees. Creative managers will find themselves being elevated to senior management positions within companies. More than ever, companies will value creative individuals who can participate in the development of new products, new services, more efficient processes, and improved employee programs.

Virtually Re-imagining the Three C’s – Communicate, Coordinate and Collaborate

Every meeting is intended to serve one of three purposes– to communicate, coordinate or collaborate; or a combination of all three; in 2020, personal interaction came to a halt and virtual meetings suddenly became the way we conduct business. In response, we discovered a new affinity for the convenience and cost savings of virtual meetings.

Meetings are necessary to resolve disputes, negotiate settlements, manage projects, direct a workforce or interact with others during our daily work. Phone calls and emails are not effective substitutes for in-person meetings, but neither is a poorly managed Zoom meeting. The challenge businesses now face is to effectively communicate, coordinate and collaborate via the virtual meeting.

Meeting protocols and processes are being redefined by virtual meetings. What we say and how we act virtually will take on a new level of importance. Making first impressions, maintaining eye contact, confident handshakes, reading body language and interpreting speech mannerisms are being re-evaluated as the dynamic shifts from personal to virtual interaction. Companies will conduct research to determine the most effective tactics to influence perceptions and perspectives of meeting participants, and training for proper virtual meeting etiquette will be provided.

The most successful businesses will ultimately master the virtual meeting process. Top sales teams will figure out how to make a dynamic virtual sales presentation. The best managers will develop tools to create a sense of community among attendees and elicit the necessary ideas and opinions. Successful business owners will use the virtual meeting to gain greater access and interaction with their customers. The most advanced suppliers will provide a virtual visit to their factories so that customers can watch their products being produced. Companies and individuals who develop effective methods to successfully communicate, collaborate and coordinate virtually will be the winners.

In-person meetings will not disappear, but their level of frequency will most likely never return to pre-pandemic levels. The virtual meeting is now embedded in how we work, and the response to this change will be significant. The goal of every meeting is to effectively communicate, coordinate and collaborate. Success will go to those who best learn to utilize the virtual meeting and master its capabilities.

Going forward, additional trends will emerge – some resulting from the events of the past year, others from gradual events unrelated to the pandemic. As with all change, there will be challenges. But there will also be opportunities for those businesses and individuals who swiftly acknowledge and accept the inevitability of change.

About the Author – Brian T. King is the founder/owner of multiple businesses encompassing design, construction, real estate and manufacturing. A well-respected construction industry CEO, Brian enjoys offering guidance to young professionals, rising managers and entrepreneurs on a variety of topics – from personal and professional growth, to work/life balance – through his bi-weekly blog, national podcasts, and speaking engagements around the country.

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